Published June 14, 2012
| Sports Network
Philadelphia, PA – The all-too familiar mantra that "battles are won in the trenches" is one thrown around football often.
It isn't the most glamorous of positions and will rarely be highlighted by media outlets. If they are doing their job correctly, offensive linemen go relatively unnoticed, but that shouldn't detract from their importance in elevating a team from an "also-ran" to a true "contender."
With that in mind, here are the top offensive linemen heading into the 2012 FBS season:
D.J. FlUKER - An absolute monster of a man, the 6-foot-6, 335-pound Fluker has been a mainstay on the outside for Alabama for the last two seasons. His frame makes him an ideal run-blocker and has helped pave the way for record-setting tailbacks Trent Richardson and Mark Ingram of late. With rare athleticism for a man his size and a complete skill set, Fluker played on the right side last year and may be best suited there going forward. Returning to Tuscaloosa for another season, Fluker has the chance to elevate himself to the top of the list among offensive tackles in 2012.
LUKE JOECKEL - Texas A&M has the luxury of two offensive tackles who could be taken in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft. One of them is a Matthews, but the 6-6, 310-pound Joeckel may be the better of the two. A starter on the left side from the get-go, Joeckel is the complete package, with the strength to stand up to bull rushers and the poise, footwork and athleticism to handle speed guys. Just a junior, Joeckel may decide to return to College Station, Texas, for yet another season, but if he continues to progress, a top-10 grade heading into the draft may be enough to lure him to head to the NFL.
CHRIS FAULK - The 6-6, 325-pound Faulk started 12 games at left tackle last season for LSU and dominated at times as a sophomore, earning All-SEC second- team honors. A gentle giant off the field, Faulk is all business on it. A strong finisher, Faulk likes nothing more than putting a defender on his butt, something he did on a regular basis in 2011 (75 knockdowns). He played well enough to perhaps garner first-team honors, but had to settle last year. Playing with a bit of a chip on his shoulder can't be a settling thought for his opponents in 2012.
JAKE MATTHEWS - If you were to build an ideal NFL player, taking DNA from the famed Matthews family may be a good place to start. Well this Texas A&M Aggie has the pedigree necessary to become one of the nation's best. Son of NFL Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews, and cousin of current NFL star Clay Matthews, the 6-5, 305-pound junior teams with the equally talented Joeckel to give the Aggies perhaps the best bookends in the FBS, one less thing to worry about with the move to the SEC this season. A blossoming star at right tackle, Matthews should only get batter, as long as he stays healthy. It is almost a certainty that he will join several family members in the NFL in the near future.
RICKY WAGNER - Wisconsin has churned out NFL quality offensive linemen for quite some time and this season will be no different. The 6-6, 322-pound Wagner will be an anchor for the Badgers in 2012, coming off a junior campaign in which he started all 14 games at left tackle, en route to All-Big Ten honorable mention honors. Wagner made the move from right tackle as a sophomore and flourished on the left side. A veteran player, who continues to improve as both a run blocker and pass protector, his versatility is what separates him from most tackles. Viewed as a second-day draft prospect heading into 2012, Wagner could find himself first round-worthy with another strong season in Madison.
HONORABLE MENTION: Alex Hurst (LSU), Taylor Lewan (Michigan), Justin Pugh (Syracuse).
JONATHAN COOPER - A three-time All-ACC selection, including second-team honors in 2011, Cooper is regarded as perhaps the top guard in the FBS ranks heading into 2012. North Carolina's anchor up front, the 6-3, 310-pound senior is set to cap off a brilliant career in Chapel Hill. Excellent footwork and a high football IQ make Cooper a force inside. He has gone a bit under the radar with all the attention going to UNC's defensive stars over the last couple of years, but that could change in 2012. Cooper could be on the short-list for several major awards when all is said and done.
ALVIN BAILEY - Arkansas has something special in the 6-5, 320-pound Bailey, who earned some Freshman All-American accolades in 2010, followed by a 2011 season in which he was tabbed an All-SEC second-team member. After redshirting in 2009, Bailey has started every game since. Regarded as a premier prospect heading into 2012, Bailey will have a chance to shine. With the return of Heisman Trophy hopeful tailback Knile Davis and the emergence of quarterback Tyler Wilson, the Arkansas offense could have a record-setting season, and Bailey will be in the middle of it all.
TRAVIS FREDERICK - Yet another Wisconsin Badger on the verge of greatness along the offensive front. The versatile Frederick started 13 games in 2011, 11 at left guard and two at center, en route to earning All-Big Ten second-team honors. At 6-4, 330-pounds, he has the prototypical size for the next level and bring with him a strong football IQ and above-average strength. As long as he remains injury free in 2012, he should have no problem joining the long list of distinguished Badgers who have made the transition to the NFL.
GABE IKARD - This Oklahoma Sooner showed his versatility in 2011, starting all 13 games, including seven at center due to an injury. The 6-4, 300-pound Ikard proved himself at both positions last year, while earning All-Big 12 first-team honors as a sophomore. He was tabbed a Freshman All-American in 2010, playing in 14 games and starting 12 at left guard. A blossoming interior lineman with a strong skill set, Ikard finished last year with a career-high 88 knockdowns. He will be an anchor along the offensive front for the Sooners, who should once again dominate on offense with the return of star quarterback Landry Jones.
CHANCE WARMACK - A consistent performer along Alabama's offensive line, Warmack has started every game over the last two seasons. The 6-3, 320-pounder garnered All-SEC second-team honors for the national champion Crimson Tide in 2011 and has a chance to elevate his draft status along an offensive line that is chock- full of All-American talent.
HONORABLE MENTION: Larry Warford (Kentucky), Blaze Foltz (TCU), Gabe Jackson (Mississippi State).
BARRETT JONES - The most versatile and perhaps talented offensive lineman in the FBS also happens to reside in Tuscaloosa, Ala. The reigning Outland Trophy winner was a unanimous First-Team All-American in 2011 and is a two-time All- SEC first-team selection and two-time national champion. The 6-5, 305-pound Jones would headline all three lists (OT, OG, C), but gets the nod here because he will make the move to the pivot as a senior, after a dominant performance at tackle last year and two years of strong play at right guard prior to that. The complete package, Jones will finish up a truly remarkable career at Alabama in 2012, before making the jump to the NFL next season.
DALTON FREEMAN - A 2011 All-ACC first-team selection, Clemson's veteran center was a finalist for the Rimington Award as a junior. The 6-5, 285-pound senior has started 36 of a possible 40 games over the last three seasons and is on pace to become the school record-holder for career starts along the offensive line (48). He may be the most important piece of the Clemson offense this season and that is saying a lot considering the talent that is returning at the skill positions. Freeman has seen it all and will provide the type of leadership needed in Death Valley to keep Clemson relevant in the ACC in 2012.
KHALED HOLMES - USC has a veteran presence in the middle of the offensive line in the form of 6-4, 305-pound Khaled Holmes. After earning All-Pac-10 honorable mention at right guard in 2010, Holmes moved to center and picked up All-Pac-12 second-team honors in 2011. The senior possesses great versatility and could elevate himself to the top of the center list by the end of 2012. It could be a special year at USC, as the Trojans are loaded on offense and would like nothing better to get back to a BCS bowl game. Holmes will be an important piece to the puzzle in 2012.
BEN HABERN - Despite an injury that cost him a good portion of the 2011 season, this Oklahoma Sooner remains one of the top pivots in the country. The 6-4, 292-pounder suffered an arm injury last year and missed five games, but he will resume his role in the middle in 2012. A smaller, athletic type, Habern is a three-year starter in Norman and should once again provide great continuity with star quarterback Landry Jones.
JAMES FERENTZ - The Ferentz legacy in Iowa is not limited to head coach Kirk Ferentz as his son James has developed into a solid center at the FBS level. The 6-2, 285-pounder started all 13 games last year and was tabbed an All-Big Ten honorable mention selection. The Big Ten has had some talented centers over the last few years and 2012 could shape up for more of the same.
HONORABLE MENTION: Graham Pocic (Illinois), Joe Madsen (West Virginia), Braxton Cave (Notre Dame).